Managing Southeast Asia’s Fractured Societies

Posted on 01/13/14
By Rodolfo C Severino | Via East Asia Forum
Population density in Southeast Asia. (Photo by Jeff McNeill, Creative Commons License)
Population density in Southeast Asia. (Photo by Jeff McNeill, Creative Commons License)

Political unrest, economic divisions, social turmoil, outright insurgency and civil war are common problems in the modern age. In Southeast Asia such problems are pertinent currently in Thailand and perennially in the Philippines. Elsewhere, they seem to be characteristic of the troubles in Ukraine and in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and other Arab countries. What do these countries have in common? Some have to do with ethnicity. Some with religion. Some with geography. Others with gaps in income. Others with differences in education and exposure. Others with the rural–urban divide. Still others with a combination of two or more or all of these at once.


Media commentators and academic analysts emphasize one or another of these phenomena in their analyses of developments in individual countries.


The current upheavals, some violent, others unarmed, all unsettling, it seems can be best summarized as being caused by cultural divides or gaps between the forces of modernization and those of tradition, between the educated elite mostly in the cities and the teeming masses mostly in the countrysides. The eruption of all this telegenic conflict heightens the perception of social inequality within nations, affecting social cohesion at a time when cohesion is needed most.


For example, the rule of law may bring advantage to those who know the law. Thus, they may wave pieces of paper issued by governments giving them title to certain parcels of land. Others may think that they own what they and their forefathers before them have cultivated for centuries, but have no legal title to it. Thus they cannot get the legitimate sources of credit to consider that piece of land as rightful collateral. The former measure real-estate property by square meter, for instance, while the latter measure it by how long it takes for a stick of cigarette to be smoked.


What may be condemnable, regrettable and/or punishable corruption or ‘vote-buying’ to the city-slicker may be just another source of livelihood or survival for others. They have different conceptions or interpretations of justice, with the former adhering to and invoking laws passed by an elected legislature and the latter focusing on social justice.


The former generally uphold the sovereignty and writ of the state within internationally recognized national boundaries. The latter regard those boundaries — drawn and laid down in any case by foreign colonizers long ago — as irrelevant to their daily lives and to their dealings with brethren on either side of what to them are artificial national borders, even assuming that they are aware of such borders at all.


Not least, and perhaps most important, is the notion of one-man, one-vote elections — the right to rule bestowed by the ballots of the majority of electors. It is the idea of democracy itself.


Related to all this is ‘populism’: what some may consider as vote-buying through ‘populist’ measures, others may regard as long-overdue manifestations of attention to the downtrodden masses whose interests have long been ignored by the ‘urban elite’.


What happens if the person or persons elected, admittedly by the majority of the people in a state, rides roughshod over the interests, if not the lives, of people now becoming a minority and fearful of the loss of their privileges, if not their lives and livelihoods? Will that minority be justified in seeking the overthrow or replacement, through extra-legal means, of those who had been voted in according to laws that the elite themselves — or, more accurately, those whom they themselves had used to consider as their representatives — drafted, passed and accepted?


These are difficult questions. As far as I know, no text book, on civics or otherwise, provides any answers to them. Each society will have to resolve them by itself, as they are being resolved in some countries today.


In any case, the traditional, mostly countryside masses seem in all societies to be moving towards the rule of law, anti-‘corruption’ as a form of social justice, and rationality as against tradition or what they regard as tradition. This trend is largely caused by the general opening up of societies, the market-driven operation of technological developments in transportation and communications, and the resulting efficacious and widespread transmission of ‘universal’ norms, which have exposed state decision-making to the influence of increasing numbers of people and generally shortened the tenures in office of many elected national decision-makers. The convergence may take place slowly in some societies, suddenly in others, and at different paces in all; but the trend seems to be inexorable.


In all cases, the process will take time, and patience. No small degree of humility, and the ability to consider the argument on all sides, is called for.


Rodolfo C Severino, a former ASEAN Secretary-General, is head of the ASEAN Studies Centre in the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. The views expressed here are solely his own.

Check Also

Four Things to Know Ahead of the NATO Summit

ECFR experts pick out four main topics to pay attention to ahead of the NATO Summit in Brussels.

After US Withdrawal, Iran Embraces China

Relations between China and Iran are free from the concerns around human rights that continue to dog Western powers’ sometimes troubled interactions with Beijing.

Leave a Reply